Johnston Charter Review Commission proposes expansion of school committee by four appointed seats


Is your school committee big enough?

Johnston voters will likely decide whether to nearly double the current school committee, from 5 to 9 members, should that question make the ballot in November with a long list of other Town Charter revisions. And the four new members would be appointed, not elected, to the school district’s governing board.

Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena’s appointment to the Johnston Charter Review Commission (JCRC), Taylor Russo, introduced the idea at the Feb. 8 meeting.

“I think having five members elected is a good thing,” Russo told her fellow CRC members. “… With everything going on, to avoid conflict between the town and the school committee … I would propose to have four appointed members in addition to the five elected members. It would still be an odd number. It would still be a majority elected members. I just think you’d be getting a broader opinion and more voices on the school committee.”

In Their Defense

Susan Mansolillo, the Johnston School Committee’s appointment to the JCRC, pushed back a little.

“So they weren’t elected by the people?” Mansolillo asked. “My question is this. You’re saying four. You have five districts. Who gets to select who those appointees are?”

“The town,” Russo replied. “How the other boards are formed. Voted on by Town Council.”

“Two by the mayor and two by the council?” asked JCRC Vice-Chairman Fred Iafrate. Russo agreed.

It all went very smoothly at first.

There have been several strong hints that big changes were coming to the Johnston School Committee. The mayor attempted a financial takeover of the schools last year. That led to a series of audits and the hiring of attorneys to represent the town and the school district, should litigation follow.

Then the JCRC was formed, to examine, article by article, the Johnston Town Charter.

So far, the board has considered a resolution to increase the mayor’s pay (from $75,000 to anywhere between $100,000 and $130,000) and town councilors’, a delay in the town’s budgetary schedule, and now four new appointed members to the School Committee.

“I’d like to add to that proposal that two be appointed by the mayor, two by town council, with the same rights as the (elected) school committee (members),” Iafrate added to Russo’s proposal.

“The same rights?” Mansolillo asked. “Voting rights? I don’t think they should have the same voting rights as the elected. I think they could serve as counsel to the elected.”

“That’s not my proposal,” Iafrate objected. “I think there would be better relations, with the town seeing the everyday duties of the school committee and school department.”

Mansolillo suggested an advisory committee, or “more of a liaison.”

“It doesn’t work though,” Iafrate said.

Mayors & School Committees

JCRC attorney and co-spokesperson Allan Fung, former mayor of Cranston and counsel for the town as it attempts to take over school finances, interjected to mention a short list other Rhode Island school districts that have tried this “hybrid” style of school committee, or have an appointed school committee.

Fung mentioned Providence, Central Falls and Woonsocket.

“These districts are also under the control of the state,” Mansolillo said. “They’re not under the control … they’re not run by their respective municipality. They’re under the control of the state because they were not capable of running it themselves. Remember that.”

JCRC member Joseph Andriole entered the conversation. He said the Providence school board was all appointed before the state took over.

“It’s like apples and oranges — state control versus composition of the school board,” Andriole said. “That’s all that I want to put on the record so we’re on the same page.”

Mansolillo asked for permission to speak.

“The whole purpose of this is the mayor feels like he can’t get along with the school department,” she told the rest of the commission.

Only one member of the public attended the meeting — School Committee Chairman Robert LaFazia. He silently waited for his turn to speak. For the moment, Mansolillo was speaking for herself and the rest of the school committee.

JCRC Chairman and co-spokesperson Richard DelFino Jr. interrupted Mansolillo’s argument against the proposal.

“No one suggested the mayor suggested that,” DelFino argued.

“I’m speaking,” she said. “Can I please finish?”

Members spoke over each other for a few seconds. DelFino and Mansolillo were both straining to stay polite.

“Mr. Iafrate said ‘it’s not working,’” Mansolillo said.

Iafrate chimed in: “It isn’t. Go ahead. Speak.”

“This whole recommendation is being made because the mayor thinks this isn’t working; what we have,” Mansolillo continued. “The whole issue we have right now is over money. It’s not over how the schools are being run. They’re being run fine. The whole issue is over money. The mayor can’t run the schools … through the business side. If the schools had been funded over the past years with just a maintenance of effort, there would have been ample funds to fund the school department through today and there would be no shortfalls and there would be no financial issues.”

Elephant Not In The Room

Mansolillo referenced the mayor repeatedly, though he was not present at the meeting. Polisena has not attended any of the JCRC meetings.

“He’s doing studies,” Mansolillo argued. “He’s doing audits. I don’t think they’re finding what they’re looking for. There’s nothing awry. There’s nothing wrong. There has just been some under-funding. Once the funding is level and where it should be, it will be fine. And there won’t be an issue. The school department isn’t looking to fight … We just want to be able to fund our budget and work cohesively and cooperatively with the town.”

Andriole interrupted with a rhetorical question.

“Are you trying to say … that the funding hasn’t been adequate?” He asked. “But that’s not just the mayor. It’s the council that adopts the budget. So if there is a problem, if there is one that exists, I don’t know if it’s just from the mayor’s office, or it sounds like there’s a funding problem, that’s a mayor and legislative body council versus the school department or vice versa.”

“And we don’t want it to be versus,” Mansolillo argued. “We are trying to work through this.”

Mansolillo admitted the School Committee asked for a lot more money this year, over past years.

“We asked for $4.5 million more than we got last year,” she said. “Which is a significant sum of money. It is. But for many years, over 10, we were level funded. No maintenance of effort. Nothing. That’s a lot of years Joe.”

“If people think we couldn’t manage a budget, that’s managing a budget … we managed our budget without going into deficit for most of those 10 years without any increases,” Mansolillo argued. “I think that speaks volumes to what the School Committee is capable of. So, the mayor and the town council this year gave us half of that, but we really needed all of it to meet our budgetary needs. We said we’d work cooperatively with them. They’ve sent people in. We’re still waiting for the final reports.”

“You can put out there whatever you want,” Mansolillo said to conclude her argument. “You want to put out that you want appointed people, put it …”

“Just finish your comments so that we can continue,” DelFino said, raising his voice over the end of Mansolillo’s explanation of the current fractured situation between the mayor and the school department. “Let me say one thing.”

Co-Spokesman Speaks

DelFino took the floor.

“So you jumped in and you had to get your point across,” DelFino argued. “No one suggested that the mayor said anything at all about any of this. Taylor made a motion ...”

Russo is the mayor’s direct appointment to the JCRC. If anyone at the meeting was to speak for the mayor, it would likely be his lone appointment to the board.

“It’s happening because she said it,” DelFino boomed. “No conversations took place with the mayor who said I want to do this, I want … He’s not here tonight. You use this opportunity to make this suggestion that there’s a problem, that there’s a problem.”

“Fred Iafrate said there was a problem,” Mansolillo replied.

“He said there was a problem, or it’s not working,” DelFino clapped back. “The only thing on the floor right now is there is a recommendation to maybe increase the size of the school committee.”

DelFino said he wanted to ask Mansolillo some questions.

“You seem to be opposed to … what she’s suggesting, more members,” he argued. “The other communities that have suggested a hybrid have also suggested that more members bring out more constituency representation.”

He shouted his first question at Mansolillo: “What percentage of this town, school children, identify as black or brown?”

“I didn’t want to go down this road, but now I’m going to ask these questions,” DelFino argued. “Because what he said and what she said only should have drawn a discussion on the topic of why should we include more people on the school committee. It had nothing to do with Mayor Polisena; with a fight between the parties; with money issues; with under-funding … you’ve used every opportunity at these meetings to talk about whatever the issue is between the school committee and the mayor.”

DelFino denied any collusion between members of the JCRC and the mayor’s office.

“There has never been a conversation between the mayor and myself relative to this issue,” he insisted. “But now that it’s on the table, I want to take it to the next step.”

He shouted his question at Mansolillo again. “What is the percentage of children in the town that identify as black or brown? I want the answer. I don’t want a guess. I want an answer.”

“I don’t know the exact number,” she answered.

“What percentage of students in this town, of families in this town, send their children to private or parochial school?”

“I don’t know the exact number,” Mansolillo answered again.

“What percentage of kids … in the schools … identify as second language learners? What percentage?” He asked. “I want the answer! Not a guess. I want the answer!”

DelFino shook the room for an answer.

“Do you know?” he yelled. “Do you have a guess?”

“What percentage of people in the town of Johnston have no children at all — taxpayers with no children in the school system?” He asked, rounding out the four categories of what DelFino called the un-represented minorities of Johnston.

Broader Representation?

“Maybe, black and brown students need a representative on the school committee,” DelFino argued. “Maybe special ed services, kids who are receiving special ed services, need a representative on the school committee. Maybe parents of parochial school kids, who pay a lot of money in taxes, have a right to have a representative on the school committee … there’s no downside to suggesting more people on the school committee, that could be appointed by the mayor.”

Then DelFino got personal.

“Who’s the financial expert on the school committee?” He asked Mansolillo. “It hasn’t worked out very well. Has it?” He answered his own question and then continued arguing for broader representation on the school committee.

“This is a way to achieve that,” DelFino told the JCRC. “If that’s what Taylor had in mind. I have no idea. Because we got into a discussion of defending the school committee in its fight against the mayor.”

DelFino, the town’s former Democratic Town Committee chairman and current executive director of the Johnston Senior Center, spent years on a previous iteration of the Johnston School Committee. He eventually resigned following a disagreement over a superintendent search committee.

“Back when I was on the school committee I heard it all the time,” DelFino recalled. “Tell me why that’s a bad thing. Tell me why more representation is a bad thing. It’s doing nothing with regards to you representing your district … I think more representation of marginalized groups in this town, is good for the school department.”

Mansolillo took a moment to defend herself.

“I didn’t say that I was against what she (Russo) said,” Mansolillo explained. “I didn’t say that … I agree that we need better representation. And we’ve talked about that, even about our administrators.”

The JCRC will eventually agree on a final set list of proposals to present to the Town Council. Town Council, however, ultimately has full control over what proposals they take to the voting public during the fall election. According to DelFino, the decision has yet to be made whether voters will vote on each proposal separately, or together. Changes to the charter that involve elected office-holders will not take effect until the next term of office begins, following the referendum vote.

Lafazia lightened the mood to conclude the discussion. He assured the JCRC that members of the current Johnston School Committee would not be seeking a raise from taxpayers.


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